Young Independents Entrepreneurial spirit thrives in Phillip and Madra McDonald By Zandra Wolfgram
Madra and Phillip McDonald grew up around the corner from one another in Miramar Beach, but they didn’t see each other until they applied for jobs in 1999 at the same restaurant. Both self-proclaimed "foodies" were hired — she as a hostess, he as a chef.
They eloped to New York and married the day before the famous power-grid blackout that hit the Northeast in August 2003. And they say they’ve been led by blind faith ever since.
Madra McDonald, 29, now owns her own public relations company, giving a voice to worthy causes and branding businesses. Phillip McDonald, 33, is cooking up cunning ways to showcase his tasty talent, one private dinner at a time. Together, they are one of Northwest Florida’s more talented young couples, making a mark with their entrepreneurial passions.
After honing his culinary talents at area eateries Cuvee Beach, Criolla’s, Fish Out of Water and Onano, among others, Phillip McDonald was hungry for independence. "I wanted to do things my way," he said. And he did just that in short order.
During the economic boom, the young chef saw that people were relocating to the Scenic Highway 30A area and buying $100 bottles of wine. Anxious to break in the designer gourmet kitchens in the quaint upscale beach towns, McDonald decided to bring private chef service to the market. Table Five, the name signifying the five senses, was fully baked by October 2006.
The business took off after Darryl Davis, co-founder of Seaside, hired him to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for a party of 20.
"She raved about it and got me on the Seaside concierge list," McDonald says. Seaside led to clients at Rosemary Beach and then to more at WaterColor.
"It happened by word of mouth," he says.
At first, Table Five targeted course dinners to high-end clientele, but when the market on 30A shifted, McDonald began to cater to vacationers in condos looking for alternative dining options.
"I started doing family-style dinners they could eat while in their bathing suits," he says. "It was simple for them."
And for McDonald, simple is the spice of life.
"I don’t want to hide anything. I keep it simple. Less is more," he says with a smile.
After just three years, Table Five names among its clientele celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, food writer John Mariani, NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, and political pundit James Carville. It also has diversified to offer small weddings, corporate functions, cocktail parties, culinary consultation, education and cooking classes, and even gift certificates valid for private champagne dinners.
But McDonald is quick to credit his wife and publicist for his success.
"It’s been invaluable having in-house PR," he says.
Once Table Five began to take off, Madra McDonald was ready for a change, too.
"Unlike my nature, I made a move without any backup plan," she says. She left her job at a growing advertising agency and, after six months of transition, started doing public relations work for a local surf school run by a longtime friend.
"That first step reignited me," Madra McDonald says.
Soon after, she got involved in the local Surf Rider Chapter and worked on International Surfing Day (June 20), which led to meeting the owners of YOLO Board, a stand-up paddleboard company based in Santa Rosa Beach. YOLO hired her to build brand awareness.
"Because the work stemmed from a natural interest of mine, it made me feel even more comfortable," McDonald says. YOLO, which stands for "You Only Live Once," inspired her to continue to trust her blind faith. M Public Relations was officially established in February 2008. Jenny Etheredge is her only associate.
M Public Relations is a full-service public relations agency whose tagline asks, "Who’s telling your story?" For Madra McDonald, Taylor Haugen’s story was particularly poignant. Haugen, a Niceville teen athlete and star student, died suddenly while playing in a high school football game in 2008. M Public Relations honored Haugen’s memory by promoting the Taylor Haugen Foundation, which provides student scholarships and funds student ministry missions.
Inspired by "the power of people coming together to make a difference for a common cause," McDonald combined her compassion and public relations skills when she organized a charity concert for the Haugen Foundation. The event generated $64,000 in one evening.
She is optimistic that the business community is becoming more savvy about how to get its message out.
"I see a renewed realization of advertising and public relations. People are getting the idea that one shouldn’t be without the other," McDonald says. "There is no doubt that press is powerful, but you can’t lose sight of advertising. It’s all a balance."
Q+A with the Ms
Do you consider your family style dinners a part of the "Farm to Table" movement? I do work with local farmers when I can. I’m developing a farmer network, but it’s not affordable every day. If you want corn from Chipley, you have to drive there and get it. I do it for special events. I base menus on what’s in season. Cooking with local foods teaches you to not waste anything. That is the beauty of that.
What are you most proud of? Adapting to the changing market. I started out as one thing and changed to another. It’s rewarding. We’ve used creative marketing solutions.
What is the best business advice you’ve been given? Write a business plan. Change it when it needs to be changed. It gives you direction. Now, I have a blueprint to follow.
Do you have a public relations philosophy? The idea that there are textbook rules, but also grassroots energy, a social aspect. Good PR is a blend of the two, not one or the other. And to always create momentum, energy. PR is being tweaked with social networking, for example, it’s ongoing; it’s a process.
Who do you admire in business? My clients. I work for the owners of companies. Their stories are unbelievably inspiring. I always feel I walk away with something.
What’s next for M Public Relations? If motherhood is in my future, I look forward to juggling both. I would like to tap into the Lifestyle market. The area is growing. It’s exciting to know the potential of the area and be a part of that.
Do you both work at home? How is that? Madra McDonald: Most people work on having date nights. We work on dates to be apart, to get balance.
If you were not a chef and publicist, what would you be?
Phillip McDonald: A fisherman on a boat.
Madra McDonald: Something with psychology and caring for people, like a social worker.
Phillip McDonald: Captain of the fishing boat.